ABINGDON, Va. — Voters in Washington County soundly defeated a referendum Tuesday that would have moved county court functions to a vacant Kmart building off Interstate 81 in Abingdon.
Tuesday’s unofficial vote was 12,075 against the move with 5,271 voting for it. The decision means the question can’t be brought back to voters for 10 years.
The courthouse move was proposed because county leaders and judges expressed concerns over the current courthouse’s security issues, space problems and lack of a large parking area nearby.
Every precinct in the county voted against the referendum, with the most overwhelming margins in the East Abingdon, West Abingdon and Greendale precincts.
“I think it’s a clear message from the people,” County Administrator Jason Berry said of the outcome Tuesday night.
One of those people was 82-year-old Marilyn Butler, who discussed the issue after casting her ballot at Wallace Middle School on Tuesday afternoon.
“I respect the opinions of some of the older citizens and the lawyers in town, and some have recommended that old courthouse be renovated,” she said. “And the other thing, the issue is, even if we voted to move it, I don’t think it’s [shopping center] zoned for that. That’s the problem. … I would say, stay where it is in the center of town and preserve the businesses downtown because, if the courthouse moved, the businesses that feed off of that will move.”
The proposal stirred up tension between town and county leaders over zoning issues that were not resolved at the time of the election.
“I’m committed to working with the town of Abingdon on any and all projects, including what we do with the current courthouse. And, I think, the town has committed to the county with helping with any kind of parking solutions at the courthouse,” Berry said.
Mike Rush, 70, who represents Damascus and Green Cove on the Washington County Board of Supervisors, said the referendum provided an example “of the truest form of democracy.”
At the end of the day, Rush said, “Everybody has to be satisfied with this decision because it’s the will of the people. And, fact is, we’ll go to work to ensure the outcome that was endorsed by the majority of voters comes to fruition.”
Al Bradley, 73, a town councilman in Abingdon, strongly opposed the move.
“We passed a motion that we were willing to work with the county if they wanted to stay on courthouse hill. We didn’t want to see them make the move to the Kmart. And we’re glad to work with them, and, as far as I know, we’ll continue to work with them,” Bradley said.
Now government leaders are set to call the judges in the courthouse and work on plans to renovate and expand the current structure, which dates to the late 1860s, he said.
Berry expects to reconvene the courthouse committee to include new members of the Board of Supervisors as well as Abingdon Town Manager Jimmy Morani and possibly Mayor Wayne Craig.
The committee will “not start over from square one but maybe close to that,” Berry said. “We’ll start talking to our judges about reconstituting the courthouse committee and then start looking at all of the plans and evaluate everything.”
Berry expects to return to a 2016 engineering study “and potentially visit other options.”